The Planets by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary)

Is there a place where our trajectories can speak for us, without our intervention?  The other did not respond.  If it does exist, we don’t know where it is; if it doesn’t, we should invent it.

Click on the cover image to read an excerpt of The Planets (available on the Open Letter website).

I won’t pretend to completely understand everything that is going on in The Planets.  Despite that, I can appreciate that with its publication by Open Letter Books, Sergio Chejfec has presented English readers with a gentle novel on friendship, grief and loss.  It is, ostensibly, a collection of memories told to us by the narrator about his childhood friend, M.  M was abducted during Argentina’s Dirty War.  He disappeared, his fate unknown, leaving his friends and family in a kind of limbo.  (Sergio Chejfec has stated that the book is in part based on a real life friend who did disappear in the 1970’s).  Some years later the narrator reads in the newspaper about an explosion outside of Buenos Aires.  He believes, for no good reason and without evidence as far as I can see, that M was killed in it.  What he has come to see as confirmation of M’s death unleashes the flood of memories which make up The Planets.  Eventually leading him to some kind of closure.

Memories are not bound by the law of causality, linear space or time.  And so we are forced to follow the disorganized train of the narrator’s thoughts.  Interspersed between the memories of M are other, related, memories – an encounter the narrator has with his and M’s mutual friend, meeting M’s mother after the abduction, stories told to him by M and M’s father. It becomes tricky keeping track.  This meandering stream-of-conscious style was also present in My Two Worlds, but the geography of the park in which that narrator walked provided a structure.  Structure which I badly missed in The Planets…. at least in the early chapters.  Coming to terms with the lack of a lineal storytelling is a hurdle that has to be overcome in order to appreciate this novel.

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Planets is obliquely about grief.  Like Salinger, Chejfec plays this information close to the chest.  He engulfs you in his narrator’s subconscious, leaving you to experience first hand the strange distance combined with an eery connection that exists between the person lost and the other left.  Holden Caulfield mentions his dead brother briefly in passing, but his loneliness informs every line of the novel.  The narrator of The Planets has assembled a montage of memories, yet his connection to M (he eventually acknowledges) is stretching and becoming tenuous.  To confuse matters, his memories of M are mixed with fictional stories he’s come to associate with the friendship.  Some of those stories are split into parts, appearing at random intervals through the course of the book. It’s often difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, but the experience of the narrator attempting to hold on to his grief and, through the emotion of grief his friend, is recognizable and feels real in its very ambiguity.  Heather Cleary, the translator, has done a remarkable job of capturing what she refers to as a “certain – productive – dissonance” in the text.*

A highlight of The Planets, which is foremost a novel of ideas, is the narrator’s explanation of how the static existence (or non-existence) of M, created by his disappearance and the mystery of his fate, has changed the orbits the two young men once traveled in relation to each other.  Chejfec continuously references space, gravity, stars and the planets.  The ongoing metaphor that he’s created is startling because it is so beautiful.

The constellations that M and I believed we formed throughout the day as we connected our individual trajectories needed the space of the city to be understood as such, as the orbits of planets whose course is influenced by the relative effects of mass, force, gravity, and things like that, which define the breath and depth of their impact as complex equations and reciprocal equilibrium; in the same way, the two of us seemed to bear the weight of the city on the transparent lines that connected our bodies in movement.

Sergio Chejfec seems to have an attachment to the cosmos, as demonstrated by his choice of titles.  My Two Worlds, The Planets, and the upcoming The Dark, seem too pointed to be coincidental. As more of his books are translated into English, perhaps the significance (if one exists) will come to light.  Which segues nicely into why I find Chejfec’s writing interesting and exciting.  There’s so much there to explore.  These aren’t books to be quickly consumed and, just as quickly, forgotten.  The Planets will linger, frustrate and engage – demanding you return to it to fully understood and appreciate its many layers (for example, I haven’t even touched on the political aspect of the wartime setting).  This is what I like best about Sergio Chejfec’s novels – like the great classics of literature they live and grow with the reader.  As such, they are never finished.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012).
ISBN:  978 1 934824 39 9

*This link leads to an excerpt of a longer post (which can be read in its entirety here) from Heather Cleary’s blog Lost in the Stacks.

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My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson)

Like the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I am an inveterate walker.  Never to be confused with a hiker, city walkers are an entirely separate category who delight in the organized, the man-made, the carefully choreographed.    We choose “To walk and nothing but.  Not to walk without a destination, as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and the terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.”  While I have explored most of the major U.S. cities on foot – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, etc., my international resume is limited.  I have never been to Brazil, yet Sergio Chejfec so thoroughly captures the essential place-ness of the park through which his narrator travels that I feel I could add it (my guess is Parque Farroupilha/A Redenção in Porto Alegre?) to my Top 10 list of  best walks. Ev-er.

Because reading My Two Worlds is the literary equivalent to taking a leisurely, meandering and  companionable walk with a new friend.   He talks while you enjoy the scenery.  Quickly you learn that our anonymous narrator is male, an author and a few days away from turning fifty.  He is shy.  He is in the habit of greeting people he does not know and who do not return his greeting.  He’s also a bit paranoid.  We learn few specifics about his background such as that he has friends, but no children and is not currently in a romantic relationship.  He talks about a niece and two nephews of whom he seems vaguely fond of (or is he just fond the idea that he is fond of them?  Like some people are in love with the idea of being in love?).  He tells you that his last novel is not being reviewed well, but can only cite his own dissatisfaction with his writing and  a malicious email containing a link to a bad review as evidence of this.

This new friend is in the city attending a literary conference.  As is his habit when traveling, he has obtained a map from the hotel front desk and carefully planned his walk the night before.  He carries his writing supplies with him in a backpack.  Other than his compulsion to walk he’s not particularly quirky or strange (as far as narrator’s go he’s amazingly tame).  While his thoughts trend towards the philosophical and the introspective at no point did I detect self-pity. Just an underlying dissatisfaction.  I do not want to give the impression that My Two Worlds is depressing – it’s not at all!  Probably due to the narrator’s dry sense of humor – which pops up frequently and unexpectedly.   And also because the narrator/companion/stranger is easy to like. He’s oddly endearing.  Someone I find myself wanting to spend more time with  than the 103 page book allows for.

As the author moves us from one section of the park to another we listen to the narrator’s opinions of himself and his surroundings.  It’s a fine park – the star of the novel.  It has an aviary, a fountain, a labyrinth, a lake filled with aquatic life (fish, turtles, frogs), paddle boats for rent and a little cafe with a lovely view.  The writing shines in the descriptions of these landscapes.  Somehow Chejfec has struck just the right note: providing enough detail to place his reader on the path beside his narrator, but avoids becoming bogged down by minutia.  He beautifully recreates the sense of discovery that occurs while wandering through a well designed park – the wonder of turning a corner and stepping in front of a carefully planned perspective.  The narrator is constantly projecting his emotional state onto these environments.  (As we all do to a greater or lesser extent).   Chejfec uses this interaction between man and terrain to explore how the interior and exterior worlds reflect each other.  The narrator seems to feel he must be, or is, constantly choosing between them.  What he does not realize is that they are one in the same.

As had happened several times earlier on this outing, before long I spotted a light area toward the end of the path; and when I drew closer, some ten minutes later, I glimpsed a tableau that at first disturbed me, I don’t know why:  over there a good-sized, tranquil lake lay hidden, and from where I was approaching I could make out some unexpected, gigantic swans, stock-still and arrayed as if in regimental formation.  As I drew nearer to the water and the scene grew better lit, I felt a mixture of wariness and wonder.  Wariness owing to something quite primal, for which I realized I wasn’t prepared:  simply the size of those pedal boats in the shape of swans, which one associated more with some monstrous scale than with any idea of a replica or an amusement; and wonder because of the illusion of standing before an inanimate army, but one that seemed subject to a latent vitality, ready to awaken or be activated at any moment.

Whether you approach it at a symbolic level, or go with a more superficial interpretation, My Two Worlds is a deeply satisfying read.  It is easily my favorite novel of 2011.  Wonderful, charming and intelligent – I believe Sergio Chejfec is a master.  What I love most about this book is probably what many reviewers have found frustrating: how atypical it is of the majority of what is published by the larger houses.  It is less a story than it is an experience.  Because of that, and the high quality of the writing, I am impatient for more of this author’s work to be translated into English. (Note:  I vaguely remember hearing at BEA that Open Letter Books, the publisher of the English translation of My Two Worlds, is planning to release a second book by Sergio Chejfec.  I still need to confirm that information).

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 28 3